From 5th December 2013 to 2nd February 2014 Modern Art Oxford presented A Storyteller’s Inadequacy, the first UK solo exhibition by artist Eva Kotátková in which she proposed a playful and awkward relationship between performance, object, sculpture and installation.  A Storyteller’s Inadequacy saw a giant speech organ command the space of the Upper Gallery, creating a playground, gym, theatre and circus mixed environment for a group of performers to enact poses and temporary body constellations. The performers interacted with an eclectic range of objects in an exploration of the possibilities as well as the limits and barriers in human communication and interaction. Oxford dance artist Jane Connelly describes her experience as one of those performers in the personal account below.

Kotátková begins her artistic enquiry by examining the rituals and mechanisms of her immediate social environment.   Drawing on personal experience and biography, she examines the role of storytelling through object and performance.  Her works are blueprints for difficulties that must be overcome in order to explore the limits of human relationships and behaviour.   Objects become mediators which borrow human voices and tell personal stories as well as literary narratives of human isolation and otherness.

In the Middle Gallery visitors encountered a more intimate performance where an actor in the guise of a professor delivered a lecture comparing traditional forms of storytelling to that of Samuel Becket which ‘searches for a narrative form which provides a voice to universal chaos, rather than support the illusion of order’. Exploring philosophical ideas surrounding language and performance, the narrative was based on a script written by Kotátková’s father, Professor of Philosophy at the Charles University in Prague and former visiting scholar in Oxford.

Jane Connelly writes:

We arrived at Modern Art Oxford and were directed to the upstairs gallery, a beautiful, open white airy space filled with a weird collection of objects, lots of white boxes and various laptops and electrical equipment precariously placed on some of the boxes. Some chairs were placed in a circle and we all sat down. We met our email contact for the project, Lawrence, and then the artist, Eva Kotátková, was introduced to us, and we all introduced ourselves. There were eight of us, a mixture of independent dance artists, students, performance artists, visual artists and actors.

Eva explained her idea, and showed us the objects; we had coffee, we wished someone would put the heating on, there was no warm up; but the space was light and airy, the objects were intriguing, Eva was lovely and friendly and the idea was interesting. There was a black shape on the floor covered with grey metal structures; these included a climbing frame, a ladder, a metal tree trunk lying on its side, a wooden bench, a structure with a dome and a metal arm cover, two white plates, an anatomy book, a blue shirt, a rug, metal hoops, metal crates to put on feet, a freestanding door, a hoop and thread thing to wear, some small pebbles and stones, three white balls, a pole with two circles at the top, a conical shape, a square shape, a small rock, boxes with holes at the side, boxes with holes at the front, a 4’ long metal beak… The shape was of the human speech organ and the structures the ways to make it work. The performers could interact with the objects to make it function and explore “the possibilities as well as the limits and barriers in human communication and interaction.”

Eva invited us to have a play on the objects. It was very uncertain at first as we didn’t know the objects, or working with each other, very well. She didn’t impose any criteria upon us, and that also initially made it more daunting as there were no real limits or rules or structure. However, we all soon relaxed into it and started to interact in different weird and wonderful ways with the objects. We also took inspiration from each other, interacting with the mood or movement of others. We used the climbing frame to stand on, suspend from, climb over, hang off inside; the metal tree trunk to pull through facing up or down, hanging in half out, face down, face up; twisted, sat on it, lay across it, suspended over it. The wooden bench, to walk on, sit on, lie on, lie across, and lie under. The rug, to lie underneath or roll up in. The possibilities were endless and we spent both days exploring them. Eva played a soundtrack of vowel noises and words, but she later dropped this and used silence.

On Sunday, the second day of rehearsal, we played some more and were more familiar with the structures, the idea and each other. Eva went around each object and, having watched what we had done, told us what she imagined could be done with each one, to give some structure to our movement. However, basically she left us to it and we just improvised with the objects to see where it led us. She seemed always to be very happy with what we did. It seemed to be better when we were all tired, and therefore more grounded and more still.

We returned for the Preview on 29th November, all of us in the space for 3 hours. The installation looked a little different, some objects were not being used, and there was in addition a big ball with a door that we could get inside (possibly). Along one wall was a long rectangular cabinet filled with cut out images suspended with string. (I sometimes got distracted by these images as from a distance they could be hard to understand, and I had to sneak up for a closer look). The other, smaller room had some smaller similarly filled cabinets and a space set up as a lecture hall with chairs in front of a desk and blackboard and books piled on the floor. On weekends an actor delivered a lecture there and was heckled by the two performers from the installation. On weekdays this was done via a sound recording which repeated every hour. Otherwise the installation was in silence.

The Preview seemed to pass very quickly as all of us were in the space and were nervous and a bit more hyped that we had been in rehearsal, (or would be in future “performances”). With all of us in a small space there was some fighting over objects and things to do. I worked with the door, knocking on it, trying to open it, peering out of it, crawling around it. Sometimes there would be someone on the other side doing the same.

After the Preview, Lawrence managed to work out a complicated timetable, based on our differing availability, so that there were always two performers in the installation every day from 30th November 2013 to 2nd February 2014. It was a different dynamic working with just one other person, or alone when they were on a break, and being there for a much longer period of time. (I have to admit I sometimes dozed off while wrapped up in the rug). Working with different people was also a different dynamic that made an impact on what I did every time.

Sometimes I never knew where to start in the space but it felt comfortable and nice and the objects began to speak to me.   Each day the moveable stuff would be in a different place, the shirt might be hanging off something, the pebbles would be in different shapes or all over the place, the hoops hanging off a structure… I mostly started at the end with the bench, but each day was different. I sometimes started sitting on the bench looking at the book (the book gradually fell apart) and looking at the dissected picture of the mouth and throat (the text was in Czech). Other times I would play with the shirt, the stones, the white balls, the hoops, the metal foot cages or the pole topped with two metal circles, putting my arm through one and hanging off it.

I would often explore the same ideas and movements with each object but change them or be inspired by what the other person was doing; or we would mirror each other on different objects or make similar sounds. I found that I would leave working with the big ball and the tree to later in the day. I would make contact with the ball, lying across it outside, around it, leaning into it; falling over the tree facing forwards or upside down, crawling inside it and then slowly coming out again. I would make designs with the pebbles, balance on the rock, sitting on it, or lying across it. I would make sounds; putting the hoops around my ankles and walking around clanging them together, or walk around dropping pebbles on the floor. I would sit in the ball or crawl around inside it and get out slowly. I found that it was a good lesson in being present and also a good opportunity to stretch bits out. One spectator said that it “looked like contact improvisation with objects.” I spent the end of one afternoon mostly on my own sat in the ball and a spectator told me that the installation was good and that they enjoyed it even though I did not do very much while they were there.

I was not very comfortable with the “talking” lecture as I don’t like public speaking at all. We had to follow a script and shout out at (heckle) the lecturer. The first time I did this most of the “real” audience left. The second time was quite funny as it was interrupted by one spectator trying to argue with the lecturer. We were official hecklers trying to look spontaneous; and he saw through that and was heckling us too.

I most enjoyed working with the tree, the ball, the arm and cage and the climbing frame. I also enjoyed watching the light change from daylight to twilight to darkness; the shadows appear, change, elongate and deepen. It was quite weird meeting people I knew by accident, especially someone from work and someone who used to be a neighbour, who would then talk to me quite happily while I was hanging upside down across a metal tree.

There were some downsides. There was not much idea about what dancers need. There was no heating in the studio during rehearsal time (and sometimes no heating in work time either) and there was a big draught from the door downstairs. There was no warm up or thought of doing one before we started improvising with the objects. The structures were not very user friendly or very safe; maybe the designers should look to stage design and props methods of making safe, comfortable, user friendly structures for performers. The metal was dirty and not really designed to be climbed on comfortably. I kept getting caught on bits of welding, especially on the tree and the ball. I could have done more on the climbing frame and ladders if the steps had been wider and easier to stand on. It was a long time to be in the space, seven hours at a time, and it may have been better in shorter four hour blocks. We were paid for this at national minimum wage, and were very grateful to be paid at all.  Being part of installations is a growing area of opportunity for performers, and perhaps EQUITY the Actor’s Union should be looking at defining conditions and rates of pay for this sort of work.

On the whole it was a very interesting and enjoyable experience and I am really glad that I did it. Some reviewers seemed to read a lot more into what we were doing that was our actual motivation. Eva never gave us any motivation other than to play with the objects as we wished in the space; she seemed to put a lot of trust into us, and I hope that we honoured that trust.

Jane Connelly

6th June 2014